Focus on Leadership: Chuck Bode talks about growing CB Flooring with his partner and wife, Carol - Jan 2021
Interview by Kemp Harr
Chuck Bode is the CEO of CB Flooring and chairman of Starnet, as well as past president of the Mid-Atlantic Flooring Association. Second-generation in the flooring business and trained in law, Chuck first joined his father and brother in their Bode Floors retail operation in Columbia, Maryland. That business was acquired by Shaw in 1996, and, in 1997, Chuck and his wife, Carol, founded CB Flooring and have been running the operation together since. Chuck and Carol, married 45 years, have two children, Matt and Emily, who are taking over day-to-day operations of the business as Chuck and Carol ease into emeritus roles.
Q: Briefly tell us the story about how Bode Floors-your father’s business-became CB Flooring.
A: Back in 1975, while in my second year of full-time law school at the University of Maryland, I was approached by my older brother, Jack, and my father, John, to join in as a partner in a new venture called the Bode Flooring Corporation. At the time, I thought I was going to be the next Clarence Darrow. I finally agreed, with the understanding that I would get my law degree finished and work at the new flooring company as much as I could between classes!
Working while attending law school was no small feat, as the company grew quickly. I got my Juris Doctor from Maryland in three years and passed the bar exam on my first try. But by then, I was hooked on being an entrepreneur. I loved building the business. I was the operations guy, and I quickly understood that if the client was satisfied with the overall installation, the next sale was so easy to make!
In 1996, after we were established, came the vertical integration revolution in our industry. The flooring dealer business was supposed to be like the automobile industry, where you only sold one brand. By then, Bode Floors was doing over $35 million a year in flooring, and we decided to join the frenzy of acquisitions by agreeing to sell our family business to Shaw Industries. We became part of Shaw Contract, eventually a Spectra branch. Bode was one of the first three companies bought by Shaw.
As we all know, the vertical integration revolution failed miserably, and after one and a half years in corporate America, my wife, Carol, and I decided to strike out on our own and start CB Flooring, so-named because the Bode Floors name had been sold with the business.
Carol and I ended up buying the Bode Floors name back eventually, and today, we have one pure retail location that does quite well trading under that name, but it’s a small part of the overall business. We have kept CB as the name for the commercial business. Carol says it stands for Carol Bode, and I say it stands for Chuck Bode.
Hilariously, now being chairman of the board, at the time of the acquisition, Bode Floors was rightfully tossed from Starnet since we were now owned by a supplier-contrary to the Starnet by-laws!
Q: Why did you decide to end your law practice and get back in the flooring business?
A: I only had one case in my entire legal career, defending my brother Robert for a traffic citation, for which he was promptly convicted. So, officially, I retired from law 0-1. As I said, by the time I got my degree and was licensed to practice law, I was hooked on being an entrepreneur. I have always been a risk-taker. My father had gotten seriously ill soon after the business was started, and I was consumed by business-related matters. I will say that in running a business, my legal education has been extraordinarily helpful at so many levels. We now utilize three separate law firms-one for corporate work, one for human resources and one for collection work.
Q: Why did you end up focusing on the commercial contracting business rather than retail, as your father did?
A: Prior to starting Bode Floors, my father was president of the Calvert Rug Company, which, for many years, was the dominant commercial player in the Baltimore market, although it did have one retail store. In the summers during high school, I would work at Ft. Meade for Calvert Rug, carrying tile and plywood to the flooring installers who were renovating army barracks. I learned to install a mile of Armstrong VCT and cove base, but my specialty was using the walk-behind stripping machine, taking up the existing 9”x9” vinyl asbestos tile for eight hours a day before OSHA got smart. After some initial reluctance to having the boss’ son on the jobsite, I eventually won the respect and confidence of the men. As a result, to this very day, I have nothing but the greatest respect for our hardworking labor crews.
Q: How were you able to double the size of your business in the last 15 years?
A: Business is a funny thing. Success is really not that complicated. If you tend to satisfy the customers, you tend to get more of them! For that to happen, the entire customer experience needs to work well and in unison. All aspects of the company, from accounting to the installer, need to perform at a high level.
CB Flooring, pre-Covid, was just over $100 million in revenue, but top line sales are just one indicator of success. The bottom line is far more important.
When the multifamily boom took off, our company increased in size substantially. That and the addition of ceramic tile to our arsenal really helped spike sales.
Q: Part of your success seems to come from the harmony you have with Carol, both in and out of the business. How do you both make this work?
A: You have discovered the secret sauce of CB Flooring, known by just a few! I am not remotely embarrassed to say Carol is the brains of the organization! I create the havoc, and she uses her extremely competent organizational skills to keep the fast-moving train on the tracks. There is no better business partner-I am the frontman, and she handles the inside. Carol and I have worked together over 40 years and are still married! Now that is the real accomplishment. I will admit, however, her office is literally a football field away from mine. I am not sure how, but we have successfully compartmentalized our work and personal matters. And we try not to talk too much shop at home. Enough is enough!
Q: The essence of your leadership seems to come from a balance between a sense of humor and a disciplined regimen. Tell us how you pull that off.
A: My dad had a wonderful sense of humor. I find it a great coping mechanism to inject humor into any tedious or stressful business subject. I always think nothing we do at work remotely approaches the life-threatening matters like what a medical person deals with these days, so why take ourselves too seriously? A sense of humor to me is one of the most appealing traits a person can have.
Q: You are one of those early-to-bed and early-to-rise people. How did you get into that routine?
A: I admit to waking up at 4 a.m. seven days a week. I don’t need an alarm clock. To make matters worse, I wake up in a good mood, ready to go! Unlike my wife, I am the ultimate morning person. I try to get seven hours of sleep a night, so you can do the bedtime math. I think it started when I was literally dispatching the crews at the original Bode Floors, which started at 6 a.m. We are in a construction-related business, and everything happens early. Nowadays, with my operations career over, that quiet time between 4 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., when the rest of the world has not yet woken up, is my absolute favorite time of day. I read four newspapers, catch up on email, check the TikTok people I follow, drink coffee and do some thinking! I walk our dog Annie-famous for starring in our retail commercials-for two to three miles every day, starting sharply at 6:45 a.m.
Q: Many successful business people have a difficult time getting their children interested in working in the family business. How did you achieve that?
A: Carol and I got very lucky with our children. Matt, the eldest, graduated from Florida State University with a double major and went to work for T. Rowe Price in finance. After being there a few years, he asked to come into the family business. He had no idea what he was getting into! He started in the field, did a stint in estimating, and finally ended up in sales. In calendar year 2017, he personally sold $12.5 million in commercial business. And I never even thought of him as a salesperson! He is now in charge of all sales and business development for CB. Matt will be taking over my role moving forward, as I transition into my new emeritus status.
Emily went to the University of Miami and graduated with a degree in accounting. She joined Price Waterhouse Cooper in Baltimore and proceeded to secure her CPA. We were able to recruit her to take over Carol’s role in a weak moment she experienced in the middle of busy season-working 70 hours a week is typical at a Big Four accounting firm.
Both these “kids” are the real deal and rock-solid citizens.
We are in the throes, as we speak, of turning over the day-to-day operating of the entire business to Matt and Emily. This industry needs to get the next generation of leaders going so it doesn’t get stuck in the past.
Q: How does a family-run contracting business remain competitive if the sector continues to consolidate?
A: I never spend a lot of time worrying about the competition. I say one should focus on their own business and things will take care of themselves. With our size and fortress balance sheet, we have all the same advantages as the consolidators. We are more nimble and less bureaucratic than most large corporations, and we work hard on customer relationships. If we were a much smaller player, I would definitely be concerned. We aren’t interested in ruling the world, just the geography we play in. I would also say that we like to grow our own branch operations.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of doing business today?
A: Covid-hands down. It’s been very disruptive. Forgetting, for a second, the personal devastation it has caused across America, it’s hard to run a business with so much uncertainty ongoing. Employees are scared, as they should be. We do our best to keep our people safe at the office, but you cannot control behaviors outside the office, and that’s how Covid gets in the door.
We are all so sick of this and cannot wait to get back to normal. I will be first in line for a vaccine when it’s my turn, trust me.
I am not a fan of work-from-home for our type of collaborative, nuts-and-bolts construction business.
Q: What gives CB Flooring an advantage over its competitors?
A: CB has deep pockets because of many years of investing our profits back in the business as we grew. We don’t shy away from the large orders. We have virtually unlimited credit. There’s no job we can’t bond if required. Our people are overall best in class, and we actually believe in and are committed to customer satisfaction!
Q: How do you choose which suppliers you support and integrate into your business?
A: As chairman of Starnet, we obviously try to support those vendors in that channel. We look to vendors that have the wherewithal to withstand a large claim and who typically produce quality products that they stand behind, who appreciate prompt payment and whose field representatives service our sales team well. It’s still a relationship business and always will be.
Q: Who are your mentors, and what did they teach you?
A: My parents were my greatest role models. I am certain they gave me my work ethic. Dad taught me the flooring business from the ground up, and my mom-bless her soul-was a strong, Italian woman, doting on her six children as a stay-at-home mother, without complaint. Raising six children is almost unimaginable in today’s world. I don’t think we could do it. I was very lucky to have those two.
Q: Recognizing that people are what makes a company successful, what do you look for in a candidate when you consider adding them to your team?
A: It seems like such a crapshoot in the hiring process these days. The Internet has accelerated job shopping, but it certainly appears less personal. There probably is no greater skill than the ability to hire good people. Your frontline associates are the company. We run applicants through the wringer with multiple interviews, of course, and try to take the guesswork out of future success, but there are no guarantees. We have a very low employee turnover rate, but there is no doubt Covid is forcing many people to think harder about what they want to do with the rest of their life, and there is definitely change in the air.
Q: Do you have a business or professional philosophy that you can share with our readers?
A: I have always believed in servant leadership. I am not impressed with titles, not even my own. You can never be the boss just because someone declared you the boss. How you interact with other people in the office is everything to me, and respect is earned over time, never given with any position or title. I consider myself there to help an employee accomplish what they need to be productive and to enjoy their employment with the company. I want to see them grow. If you take care of your people, generally they take good care of you, and, more importantly, they take care of the customer.
Q: What do you do for fun when you aren’t focused on growing CB Flooring?
A: I absolutely love to read. I always have. I majored in American history in college, and I have a strong interest in that subject. It gives current events a broader, more meaningful perspective. Given recent political events, it helps to understand the longer view.
I have many other interests: I love to golf-golf is my life!-ride my Trek bike for long distances, invest in the stock market, travel in normal times and, believe it or not, I love to garden! I find it very relaxing, and I love watching the plants thrive!
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